Although the majority of factor VII (FVII) circulates in the zymogen form, low levels of activated factor VII (FVIIa) have been postulated to exist in plasma and to serve a priming function for triggering of the clotting cascade. However, direct measurement of plasma FVIIa has not previously been possible. We have quantified plasma FVIIa levels using a novel, highly sensitive assay that is free from interference by FVII. Specificity of this clot-based assay results from the use of a mutant tissue factor that is selectively deficient in promoting FVII activation, but retains FVIIa cofactor function. In normal adults, FVIIa was found to be present in plasma (mean: 3.6 ng/mL) with considerable variation between individuals (range: 0.5 to 8.4 ng/mL). FVIIa levels were only loosely correlated with FVII coagulant activity, but were elevated in pregnancy and reduced with oral anticoagulant therapy. Incubation of plasma on ice in glass containers (cold activation) resulted in substantial FVIIa generation. Measurement of plasma forms of factor VII is of potential clinical importance because elevated FVII coagulant activity has been implicated as a significant risk predictor for ischemic heart disease. Clinically, this new assay will now permit direct assessment of the role of plasma FVIIa in thrombotic disorders.